Do Brands Make People Less Religious?

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In the United States, you can’t walk more than a block without bumping into a brand — and usually several of them at once, vying for your attention on billboards and store windows and shirts and everywhere else. Everywhere. And some folks — looking at you, Apple nerds — form surprisingly potent connections with their favorite brands.

Recently, a research team led by Keisha Cutright, a marketing professor at Wharton, wondered: What’s the relationship between all these brands and people’s religious beliefs and behavior? There’s a weird amount of overlap, after all, between the two concepts, given that both tie into deep parts of people’s senses self-identity, so Cutright and her colleagues set out to poke and prod at the relationship between the two concepts in a new Journal of Experimental Psychology: General study (free draft PDF here).

In six studies, the researchers tested how brand salience affected people’s self-reported religious commitment, as well as how much they would agree to donate to faith-based charities. For example, in one study the researchers had participants choose which of two products they’d like — tote bags, T-shirts and so on. One group had branded products, the other had non-branded ones. Both groups were then asked about their level of religious commitment.

Overall, brand salience did appear to reduce religiosity, at least in a short-term laboratory sense (including in the tee-shirts-and-tote-bags example). This is interesting for a few reasons. For one, the findings suggest, as the researchers put it, “that though religion is often an important aspect of identity, individuals are willing to forgo this aspect of identity when conflicting aspects of identity are salient.” This runs counter to the notion that religious identity is a different, more profound and stable aspect of one’s character than others — that is, it’s not supposed to be something that you can dial down a bit by waving an Apple logo at someone in the right way.

There’s also the idea that brands might fill some of the self-expressive needs that religion does: the tighter your relationship with brands, the less of a need you feel for religions affiliation and practice. Though researchers are quick to point out that they don’t think this is “the full story,” they do think it’s a factor.

While there’s tons more research to be done in this area, it’s all interesting stuff — particularly for those of us who find religious fundamentalists and acolytes of the Church of Jobs to be equally strange.